Soto just might reshuffle Padres-Dodgers dynamic

This story was excerpted from AJ Cassavell’s Padres Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

Another trip to Los Angeles. Another litmus-test weekend for the Padres.

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The rivalry has been lopsided for much of the past decade, and it’s been particularly lopsided this season, even as the Padres have established themselves as serious playoff contenders.

But these Padres-Dodgers games have yet to feel the full force of Juan Soto. And that’s where I think there’s reason for optimism on the San Diego side of things.

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Soto had only just arrived via trade when the Padres played their most recent series at Dodger Stadium. They were swept in three games.

There’s probably some resignation in the fan base about where the Padres stand in relation to the Dodgers. Maybe that feeling has set in internally, too. The Padres will finish behind the Dodgers in the standings for a 12th straight season this year.

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But Soto knows none of that. In fact, Soto’s only prior experience playing big games at Dodger Stadium registers as one of the most thrilling playoff series in recent memory. His Nationals beat the Dodgers in the 2019 NLDS — behind Soto’s monstrous game-tying home run off Clayton Kershaw in the eighth inning of Game 5.

So while the Padres have undeniably been second-best to the Dodgers for the past decade, Soto clearly isn’t the type of player willing to lie down and accept that. After that sweep in early August — after the Padres had dropped their eighth game in 10 to Los Angeles this season — I asked Soto what it would take for this Padres team to reach the Dodgers’ level.

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“What level?” Soto said, seemingly aghast that a gulf between the two would even be implied.

“We’re both in the big leagues,” Soto continued. “We both can play. We’ve got really good players. They have good players, too.”

I think this Padres team could use a bit more of Soto’s defiance.

No, Soto hasn’t quite caught fire since his arrival in San Diego. But he’s settled in nicely, especially as the Padres’ lineup has begun to click on the current road trip. Even though he’s already reaching base at a .413 clip… maybe this is the weekend he truly breaks out?

There’s no overstating the importance of this series. The Padres hold a three-game lead over the Brewers for the final spot in the NL Wild Card race. Much has been made, however, about the Brewers’ schedule strength. It’s significantly easier than the Padres’.

But that gap is tied almost entirely to the next two weekends. While the Padres play the Dodgers twice, the Brewers play the D-backs and Reds. After that, things are pretty much even.

So here the Padres are, with a chance to solidify their standing in the NL playoff picture — and perhaps make a statement that things might look different in this rivalry over the next month or two.

Not that Soto would over-emphasize Dodgers weekend. He doesn’t know any better — and that’s a good thing.

“One team?” Soto said Wednesday. “If you want to be the champion, you’ve got to beat everybody. There’s no easy team. We’ll go for them like we’ll go for everybody.”